L'Oréal Women of Worth Winner Marta Michelle Colón on Battling the Opioid Epidemic
Marta Michelle Colón turned a family tragedy into triumph, founding the nonprofit organization Be Gutsy to battle opioid addiction. She talks to People CHICA about her life-saving mission.
A family tragedy changed Marta Michelle Colón's life. After her brother was in a motorcycle accident at age 16, he had to undergo various surgeries and physical therapy. He was prescribed opioids to ease his pain, and that's when his real nightmare began. "We started seeing a change in his behavior and his attitude, and that’s when we realized he was misusing prescription opioids," she tells People CHICA. "We noticed that he was distant and he didn't want to be part of family interaction anymore. We saw a change in his motivation and aspirations. His mind wasn't there, he was like a zombie. Every day was a struggle for him."
Even though Colón, now 49, was his younger sister and was a teen at the time, she did everything she could to protect him. "I would take him to treatment centers and tried every professional support and help," she says. "At a time he became homeless, he decided he wanted to live in the street. It was downhill. We were treating his substance abuse wrong because he wasn't using illegal substances, it was prescription opioids. If I knew then what I learned, I could have probably saved his life."
Unfortunately she couldn't save her brother, who died after years of struggling with addiction even though he had tried to get his life back on track. "He got much better, he got stable, he found an apartment and a job," she recalls. "He was ready to live the life he wanted to live and to thrive." However, by then it was too late, and his body gave out. "His organs just completely shut down from all the misuse of the prescription opioids," she says.
Colón didn't want to dwell on the tragedy and wanted to make a positive difference, so she founded the nonprofit organization Be Gutsy in 2018. "We are a platform that raises awareness of the prescription opioid epidemic among Latinx adolescents and young adults," says Colón, a Puerto Rican business owner and mother of three college students.
"I learned that there is a lot of stigma around the topic. People don't want to talk about family members misusing prescription opioids or suffering substance abuse," she says. "I think the conversation needs to be open. People should talk about the danger of this epidemic. If you're fragile and need emotional support, you need to get it. If you're not emotionally stable or healthy, that can lead to substance misuse. Founding Be Gutsy was my way to honor my brother and save lives."
Colón's work was recently recognized by L'Oréal Paris, who named her their 2020 Women of Worth winner. "I see it as a validation that what we are doing is creating positive impact," she says of the award. Be Gutsy democratizes the tools to mitigate opioid misuse through local partnerships, mentorship opportunities, and healthcare programs. The platform's people-centric approach tackles Latinx youth's opioid misuse by building emotional intelligence and social skills. In two years, the organization has directly impacted more than 5,500 young adults and indirectly reached tens of thousands more through health fairs and medical programs.
"I want people to know that the danger could be a medicine cabinet away or even a family member away," she warns. "In our culture, 'sharing is caring,' but when we are talking about prescription opioids, sharing is not caring. If you have a headache or back pain or broke your leg, don't share your medication and prescriptions with anyone else."
During the coronavirus pandemic, the opioid crisis has only intensified. "The physical distancing, life disruption, and the uncertainty has impacted our emotional health, making us more vulnerable to the epidemic," Colón says. Positive change starts with awareness. "People should start by asking, 'How do you feel?' Ask your children, your colleagues — when people open up about their feelings, you can learn how to support them. If you have diabetes or asthma you go to the doctor, so what's wrong with feeling sad or angry, with managing your anxiety?" she asks. "There is professional support for that. A healthy person is someone who is both emotionally and physically healthy."